Vintage Clouds galloped his rivals into the ground

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Value Bet reflections & horses to follow

I’ll confess, there are Monday mornings after major race meetings when, as a tipster, the overarching desire is to curl into a ball in a darkened room and remain undisturbed for an unreasonable period of time.

Thankfully, today is not that day. The sun shines and spirits are high.

20 points staked; 35.20 points returned. A mere drop in the ocean when you consider somewhere around £300m was reckoned to be punted on the behind-closed doors action from Cheltenham last week, and we’re hardly in Paul Dean territory here, admittedly, but the Value Bet column’s long-term goal is to grind out a profit from single bets on over-priced horses in some of the toughest races year-round, and in that sense it was job done.

But could it have been better? A spot of self-reflection can rarely do much harm so here are my thoughts on the Festival that was, where my betting went wrong and a couple of horses not to be giving up on just yet.

Lesson learnt

Raising the stakes. If openness and honesty is at the heart of this piece, then the slightly embarrassing fact I increased my each-way stake by 50% on Frontal Assault in Friday’s Martin Pipe has to kick things off. There’s no point burying the most regrettable action of the Festival at the bottom of the article in the faint hope the majority of readers won’t even get there.

Perhaps the end of a busy week and a guaranteed profit was in sight. Maybe I foolishly saw the headlines like a greedy winger who blazes wildly over the bar from a tight angle when all that was required was a simple, square pass to a teammate with an open goal. It won’t happen again.

In fact, Ben Linfoot – the custodian of this column for a dozen years give or take a few months – barely altered from a 1pt win strategy throughout, and I'm starting to see why. It is a punter’s prerogative to do as one chooses, but it does often baffle me when people share their each-way Yankees and Lucky 15s on four Value Bet selections on any given Saturday. I’m all for the occasional dreamy life-changer, but that’s not the recommendation here and never will be.

To the contrary, expect even fewer each-way bets from me in 2021.

Galopin Des Champs wins the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle under Sean O'Keeffe

The one that got away

Bad beats are commonplace in this game, and can feel all the more nauseating during the Festival, though thankfully there weren’t many, if any, last week.

Win-only Petit Mouchoir (33/1) was a gutsy second in the County Hurdle and 40/1 each-way (1/4 1,2,3,4,5) fancy Huntsman Son – more on him below – naturally finished sixth in the Plate, but the closest I came to head-butting the wardrobe (isn’t working from home great?) was Nube Negra (10/1) in the Queen Mother.

Having spent six weeks talking Dan Skelton’s Desert Orchid winner up with the idea of him travelling away in behind before pouncing on a vulnerable Chacun Pour Soi after jumping the last, it was… let’s go with annoying… to see him travel away in behind, pounce on the vulnerable Chacun Pour Soi after jumping the last, only to find Put The Kettle On and Aidan Coleman had stolen the script and effectively got first run.

Others were less kind to Harry Skelton, but I felt he waited so long to press the big button in order to give Nube Negra every chance of beating the favourite up the hill, and he might well have won with a slicker jump at the last and a clear path thereafter, Greaneteen having just momentarily kept him in.

It wasn’t to be, but he’s clearly a very progressive seven-year-old who should be a leading player in next month’s Celebration Chase at Sandown before another light season geared towards going one better in the 2022 Champion Chase.

Put The Kettle On holds Nube Negra at bay

What was I thinking?

Not many slot into this category either which is relieving but after he appeared in the Wednesday staking plan I was politely reminded I’d gone to the trouble of messaging a friend about Shakem Up’Arry still looking ‘a bit of a shell of a horse’ after his perfectly creditable run in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.

The drift to 40/1 on the eve of the Coral Cup – no doubt in part due to the hapless run of his Tolworth conqueror Metier in the Sky Bet Supreme – lured me into a bet on Ben Pauling’s horse and, in fairness, his SP (28s) was a greater reflection of what I felt was his true price, but did I ever believe he was ready enough - or tough enough - to win a race of this nature? Apparently not.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but Shakem Up’Arry is a chaser in the making and not a tip I can look back on with a huge amount of pride.

Heaven Help Us runs away with the Coral Cup

The winners

Just a couple but I’d no doubt have taken that if offered and with a bit of luck plenty of punters benefited from best odds guaranteed after 16/1 recommendation Vintage Clouds won the Ultima Handicap Chase at 28/1.

This wasn’t an easy race to weigh up but with Irish representation relatively light (on top of Irish-trained horses being 0-26 in the past 14 years), and the British novices hardly looking thrown in, the door was open for a Festival perennial like Vintage Clouds.

It was great to see Sue Smith’s grey jumping with so much enthusiasm in the first-time cheekpieces after a much quieter campaign compared to last season, when he came to Cheltenham after five pretty gruelling races in deep ground.

He’ll be back up the handicap now but hopefully they won’t cripple him and, after making it fifth time lucky when it comes to the Ultima, you couldn’t completely rule him out of a fourth crack at the Scottish Grand National at Ayr, where he’s finished seventh, third and sixth in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Remarkably, it was 2-2 in the handicaps between British and Ireland-based horses after two days of the Festival, but the writing was on the wall in that particular mini-battle as 14/1 tip Mrs Milner made it six straight wins for the raiders in Thursday’s Pertemps Final. Brits didn’t get much of a look in for the rest of the meeting.

Paul Nolan’s mare was very cleverly campaigned and she wasn’t the only one to have popped over to Britain earlier in the season - The Shunter and Belfast Banter having also gained some experience of at least one run on these shores pre-Christmas.

If the aim is to prevent the British assessor going overboard with their ratings in relation to official marks back home then it’s not obviously come to fruition as all three were competing off 4-5lb higher than in Ireland, but it’s a ploy that obviously works well and Mrs Milner's neck second to On The Blind Side at Cheltenham earlier in the season must have been really encouraging with this event in mind.

She bolted up, in truth, and will have to find another chunk of improvement to defy an inevitable hefty rise, but she’s still only six and could conceivably end up contesting Graded races for mares from two and a half miles to three.

Bryan Cooper celebrates on Mrs Milner

Don’t give up on…

HUNTSMAN SON ran precisely the sort of race I was anticipating in the Plate, the only problem being the leaders didn’t collapse and start to come back to him on facing up to the find climb to the line.

Quite the oppose, at least when it comes to The Shunter, who just kept pouring it on and ultimately sauntered home with any amount in hand having been prominent or in front for the vast majority of the two and a half mile journey.

Huntsman Son is unexposed for an 11-year-old but he won’t get too many more chances at the Festival all things considered and I’d love to see him tackle the Topham at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.

Connections were obviously considering the Grand Sefton in December before pulling him out (unsuitable ground) but his smooth jumping technique looks made for Aintree and I’m far from convinced the handicapper has his measure despite a 9lb rise (eased 1lb since) for beating Two For Gold at Wetherby at the start of the season.

He needs a decent surface, ideally, and deserves to give trainer Alex Hales a high-profile victory at a major spring meeting.

Huntsman Son - Aintree an option?

It was money back for the void bets on LE PATRIOTE in Friday’s County Hurdle after the vets ruled him out on the morning of the race, but there were nibbles of support before the withdrawal and he’s a horse to monitor closely over the next couple of months.

It goes without saying he’s hopefully fully over whatever was ailing him but the switch back to hurdling did look really interesting and he’s definitely handicapped to be competitive again off 145 having spent most of last season in top-class company.

He signed off his 2018-19 campaign with wins at Ayr, Cheltenham and in Haydock’s Swinton Handicap Hurdle, in which he defied top weight and a mark of 148, so he’ll be found a suitable race before long.

Next month’s Scottish Champion Hurdle (handicap) back at Ayr or a return to two and a half miles in Aintree’s Orrell Park Handicap Hurdle could be suitable options before the Haydock race comes around again.

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